Variety Is the Spice of Hear Now's Musical Life - San Francisco Classical Voice

...Like islands in the storm, there were two pieces that went in a decidedly different direction. Eric Byers’s Sarabande (performed by the Lyris Quartet and Mike Vallero, contrabass) drew inspiration from Bach’s Fifth Cello Suite. Byers, a cellist himself and a founding member of the Calder Quartet, creates an evolving series of deep string sonorities in the slow dance form that elegantly evokes the spirit of Bach. Then in a second section, Byers creates a contrasting atmosphere in which ethereal harmonics create the sense of a starry firmament. Expertly performed, the piece was particularly effective within the intimate setting (and bright acoustics) of the church...

By JIM FARBER - San Francisco Classical Voice - Link to article

Three cellists answer L.A. Philharmonic’s urgent call - USC NEWS

 Alumni cellist Eric Byers had less than 36 hours to prepare for a big concert with the L.A Philharmonic after receiving the “dream call” to fill in. (USC Photo/Daniel Anderson)

Alumni cellist Eric Byers had less than 36 hours to prepare for a big concert with the L.A Philharmonic after receiving the “dream call” to fill in. (USC Photo/Daniel Anderson)

It was both a musician’s dream and nightmare: to be asked to be a soloist in a concerto with the Los Angeles Philharmonic — and to have less than three days to prepare a challenging piece of new music receiving its U.S. premiere.

When the L.A. Phil’s principal cellist withdrew from a Jan. 19 performance of Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Concerto for Cello and Orchestra, en forme de pas de trois, calls went out to three local cellists, all with USC ties.

Calder Quartet cellist Eric Byers and Lyris Quartet cellist Timothy Loo were studio classmates for years with Ronald Leonard at the USC Thornton School of Music, where the Calder Quartet was formed, and remain close friends. L.A. Phil associate principal cellist Ben Hong is a USC Thornton faculty member who studied under former faculty member Lynn Harrell.

That fateful Tuesday night, it took Loo and Byers a few minutes to realize this wasn’t a practical joke.

Loo became ecstatic: “I literally have been dreaming about this moment for my whole cello life: getting a call from a major orchestra asking me to play a concerto that weekend. I’ve always practiced like that could happen.”

But then the other reality set in. The three performances started Friday, Jan. 19.

“It was the stereotypical nightmare situation for a musician,” said Hong, who has performed his share of solos with the L.A. Phil as an orchestra member for 25 years. “You’re standing in front of a major orchestra, naked, and have to play a concerto — now!”

Call it Trojan spirit, but the three cellists not only pulled off an unprecedented feat, they earned a glowing review from the L.A. Times.

“This was an amazing USC collaboration,” Loo said. “The crazy thing about it was I think I’ve never felt so close to two other people in such a short amount of time. Eric, Ben and I were really a team, working as one cellist in a way.”

Just 36 hours to prepare

Under ordinary circumstances, most orchestras would change the program or find a new soloist when faced with a cancellation. But the L.A. Phil did not have that luxury. Guest Conductor Susanna Mälkki had been collaborating with Finnish choreographer-dancer Tero Saarinen and his ensemble to present Zimmermann’s 1966 piece as it was written, complete with dancers, for the first time. Much time and work had already been invested and the only cellists who had played the piece before were in Europe and, it turns out, unavailable.

All of the musicians agreed: It is unheard of for a soloist to learn a new piece within days of performance — let alone a piece with the technical demands of the Zimmermann concerto.

Despite their initial fears, everyone said yes to the biggest challenge of their careers.

“It was like we were skydiving,” Loo said.

“It was almost like jumping onto a live grenade to save the orchestra,” Hong told his son. “I didn’t know if I was going to survive.”

USC Thornton training

Because it was impossible for any one player to learn the entire piece in the time allotted, the three soloists had to divide and conquer. Hong took on the first and second movements, Byers, the third, and Loo, the fourth, cadenza and fifth. The work called on all of their skill and experience to pull the concert off.

Loo and Byers also tapped into the training they had received at USC Thornton with Leonard.

“Nobody could train students better for this kind of situation than Ron,” Loo said. “You never knew when he was going to throw a curve ball. He was amazing at teaching his students to be quick and flexible.”

Byers, who had no prior subbing experience, got all his fast-learning practice at USC.

“I remember bringing Mr. Leonard something new every week. Bring it in for a lesson, practice, perform it in cello class,” he said. “I’ve played concerts all over the world, but I think playing in Mr. Leonard’s cello class for him and my classmates was one of my more nerve-racking experiences. It’s amazing what a deadline can do!”

Wednesday included a technical rehearsal and half-hour one-on-one sessions with Mälkki. Rehearsals with the orchestra were Thursday and Friday.

Byers recalled, “As I walked on stage for rehearsal, I was reminded of a recurring dream where I’m walking on stage in a crowded hall to play a concerto I don’t know. That’s basically what I was doing! It had been 36 hours since I started learning my part.”

Rave music review

A lot of the usual preparation went out the window.

“Normally, when you run a new piece, you would probably put in fingerings and bowings, study the score, listen to recordings and get a broad perspective, and then slowly work out the technical aspects and repeat it slowly,” Hong said. “I didn’t have time to do it that way.”

But, Hong said, it was still important to set goals and deadlines to make sure he hit his target by Friday night.

For Hong, a special kind of training played a major role. To deal with the emotional aspects, the fear of performing before his colleagues without sufficient preparation and the fact that his left hand began to hurt from so much practice, he used the Mental Management Systems developed by Lanny Bassham, and Olympic gold medalist in rifle shooting. These techniques were designed to help athletes and performers achieve mental control under pressure. Hong is, in fact, a certified trainer for his own students.

“I did work with my brain and my body to get the best results,” he said. That meant taking one-hour naps between one-and-a-half-hour practices to give himself time for the learning to sink in.

By Friday evening, he felt “strangely ready.”

“Not at the unconsciously competent level Bruce Lee talked about, but a level below: consciously competent, sort of,” Hong said, laughing.

The cellists proved themselves more than competent. The L.A. Times praised the performance: “Three L.A. cellists save the day with last-minute musical theatrics with the Phil.” The performance was “utterly convincing.” Hong showed his “customary eloquence,” Byers played “rapturously” and Loo “excitingly led a frightful march.”

Last-minute lessons

It took a lifetime of study and performance to prepare these musicians for such an amazing opportunity.

“The last 25 years on the stage with the orchestra and having had the opportunity to solo with the L.A. Phil several times had prepared me for this moment,” Hong said. “I was grateful for the support of my colleagues, as well as Eric and Tim. We were in this together.”

And whether from practice with last-minute learning in the studio or mind management techniques, it’s a vital skill to be prepared to face challenges calmly when they arise.

“Life is never just a straight shot. There’s always something that’s going to be thrown your way, and if you get knocked off your feet, you’re going to fall down,” Loo said. “Studying with Ron at USC taught me not to get knocked off my feet.”

It’s an experience that these musicians will never forget.

“This was the kind of challenge that pushed my limits mentally and physically and required all of my focus,” Byers said. “That sort of challenge is always uncomfortable, but results in personal growth.”

Julie Riggott - USC News - Link to article

L.A. Phil soars with a cello spectacular - LA Times

la-1516565185-0ekouxtaie-snap-image.jpg

photo: Genaro Monila - LA Times

The week before returning to Walt Disney Concert Hall on Friday night, Los Angeles Philharmonic principal guest conductor Susanna Mälkki had a date with the New York Philharmonic. Lucky L.A., was the critical consensus in the Big Apple.

In New York, as with most of the Finnish conductor’s U.S. orchestral appearances so far, she has been admired for refreshing standard repertory with vivid instrumental colors, rhythmic energy, textural clarity and all around good sense. That’s well and good, but what makes Mälkki special happens to be her imagination and risk taking. She champions challenging European modernism that is little wanted in cautious American concert halls these days. She also likes bringing theatrical elements into symphonic settings.

She thinks daringly big with risky and expensive undertakings that may not always be easy to sell, but they are exactly what makes Mälkki so attractive to the L.A. Phil. A lot, of course, is on the line, and a lot can go wrong.

Friday night, Mälkki programmed the U.S. premiere of Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Cello Concerto, a difficult score that requires exotic instruments in the orchestra, boasts a killer solo part and is conceptually in the form of a highly abstract pas de trois, with the option (rarely selected) of including an actual pas de trois with three dancers.

The L.A. Phil went all out for Mälkki by commissioning the choreographer Tero Saarinen to create a half-hour dance with his Finnish company for the three weekend Disney performances, complete with costumes, set design and lighting. Mälkki surrounded the concerto with Anton Webern’s brilliant orchestration of a Bach fugue and Richard Strauss’ colossal “An Alpine Symphony,” requiring a vast orchestra.

The evening’s soloist was to have been popular L.A. Phil principal cellist Robert deMaine, who on Tuesday withdrew for undisclosed personal reasons. There are said to be only three cellists on the planet who have played Zimmermann’s incredibly demanding concerto, all in Europe.

I’m not sure any other orchestra would have dared, or even could have dared, to go on. But management turned to three local musicians with exceptional new music chops — L.A. Phil associate cellist Ben Hong, Calder Quartet cellist Eric Byers and Lyris Quartet cellist Timothy Loo — to divide the solo part. They got their scores Wednesday morning. Rehearsals were Thursday afternoon and Friday morning.

Only knowing Zimmermann’s concerto from recordings, I can’t say that the cellists were able to achieve the last word in interpretive nuance under such unreasonable conditions. But I can say that not only were all three utterly convincing, the addition of a third pas-de-trois element to the performance turned out to be a terrific theatrical idea. Moreover, the sense of camaraderie among the players, the orchestra, the dancers and Mälkki added an unexpected endearing aspect that is otherwise disturbingly lacking in Zimmermann’s music.

He was a powerful voice in post-World War II German music who saw the world as a dark and tragic place, not as a bright new universe unfolding, one that made the European avant-garde particularly dazzling at the moment and Zimmermann an outlier. He refused to forget and tried instead to stretch time in his music to include the past with the present.

Ultimately Zimmerman admitted defeat by taking his own life in 1970. To some observers, the works of his last four years, beginning with the Cello Concerto, can be read as a systematic suicide note putting the blame for his neglect on the success of such younger, dogmatic composers as Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen, who were getting all the attention.

But nearly half a century has passed since Zimmermann’s death, and his champions now proclaim him as a proto-Postmodernist who broke barriers of style and era. Plus the modern mania for Shostakovich has raised the value of the tortured composer with a rare talent for producing dramatic atmosphere, hauntingly beautiful instrumental effects and highly dramatic formal structures.

The Cello Concerto opens dreamlike, with a muted orchestra, otherworldly solo cello and a group of nontypical orchestral instruments (cimbalom, mandolin, electric bass) with a mind of its own. That is followed by an Allegro indicated, without explanation, to be for a fairy, Don Quixote and a princess. Hong, as soloist here, could be counted on for his customary eloquence.

A central slow movement revolves around a cello solo that was rapturously played by Byers. Loo excitingly led a frightful march and played a cantankerous blues with the electric bass followed by a coda in which the fairy is supposed to take her leave.

The orchestra was placed on stage in a triangular formation, bordered by rows of neon pillars. That left two areas on the front of the stage and a platform behind the orchestra for the dancers.

Saarinen’s movements often followed the musical lines, creating a feeling more wistful than nightmarish. Just as Zimmermann’s relationships between instrumental groups and between musical styles remain unpredictably fluid, so too were the dancers — Auri Ahola, Misa Lommi and David Scarantino — as they wavered between sociability and individuality. Departure and loss became the affecting inevitables.

But what proved most affecting of all was the sheer gumption of not giving up, but making the performance happen. The orchestra was at its flexible best, with many riving solos. The L.A. Phil has yet another flamboyant feather in its cap.

Mälkki has one, too. She made all evening a great case for color. Webern didn’t change a note of Bach’s in the excerpt from “The Musical Offering,” but with the continual alteration of timbre from one instrument to another, the fugue takes on an entirely new 20th century character.

Strauss’ “Alpine Symphony” is a riot of color for an orchestra as big and brilliantly hued as it gets. Mälkki climbed the peak like a brazen adventurer who was also a harmonic geologist capable of examining inner workings. She let the sun shine and the climactic vistas speak for themselves. She bathed in the waterfalls, peeked into the flowery forests and had a blast in the storm.

No sentimentalist, she cleared away the mystical pathos the score has acquired over the years (as did the composer in his own recordings of the work). Given her proven fearlessness, however, Mälkki did have to give what Strauss labeled as “The Dangerous Moments” a near Zimmermann level of disquiet, however temporary. It was a spectacular performance.

Mark Swed - LA Times - Link to article 

Adés, the British composer who now lives part-time in LA (how nice for us), came to the stage for the standing ovation given his "Lieux retrouvés," a virtuoso work of graphic sensation and infinite nuance played by the stellar pianist Gloria Cheng and masterful cellist Eric Byers, a Calder Quartet member.
The audience went wild. What else? This was riveting music that crept into every crevice of human perception -- be it lulling waters or rugged mountains or a wildly macabre club scene. Cheng and Byers were dazzling. The event, with the composer present, felt like a history-maker (as did, a few months ago, the Calders' playing of Schoenberg's Second String Quartet with stunning soprano Yulia Van Doren, though absent the composer, of course.)

Donna Perlmutter, LAObserved, 1.31.2015

 

Cellist Eric Byers and pianist Gloria Cheng were brilliant in Lieux retrouvés, written in four movements connoting different vistas.  Byers began “Les Eaux” with a deceptively sublime sweetness that gradually churned itself into a frenetic crashing wave of energy.  Cheng livened up the meandering melodic streams of “La Montagne” with her zestful exuberance.  “Les Champs” had a simple, delicate quality, and Byers was masterful on the quiet ultra-high-pitched lyric melody, keeping it sustained, slow and pianissimo.  The feeling was fragile, the sound rarefied.  The technical difficulty was belied by Byers’ exquisite control as he approached the limits of his instrument, an instrument that sang beautifully.  The final movement was the lively “Le Ville,” jumping off the stage with its twisted “Can-Can” under an eclectic patchwork of tunes and effects.  Byers was animated, perhaps even manic.  His performance was magnificent, and in response the audience leapt to their feet for repeated calls.  Adès was proud.  Lieux retrouvés was an extraordinary start to the program, and arguably the most emotionally charged element of the evening.

Theodore Bell, Culture Spot LA, 1.31.2015

 

'cellist, Eric Byers, gave an ideally eloquent reading of the intense, Bartókian Sonata for Solo Cello, showing that the fierce beauty is a quality of many shades.'

Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times, 1.14.2013

 

In both the rigorous opening movement and the more reflective Andante, I admired cellist Eric Byers’ adroit phrasing and sensitivity to ensemble balance as he essayed his numerous solos with bravura authority. The baritonal eloquence of his sound resonated warmly in the welcoming acoustic of Prebys Hall.

Kenneth Herman, sandiego.com, 4.16.2010